Unexpected Secrets, page 8part #1 of Hard Limits Suspense Romance Series
The silence stretched—I knew it was my turn.
“I—I’m working on a project for a senator.”
“What kind of project?” he asked, his eyes watchful.
“It’s supposed to be top secret, Gabriel.”
His eyes narrowed, and I knew I wouldn’t get away with evading the details. My eyes shifted away as I tried to recite the story I’d gone over again and again in my head as I’d prepared for this moment.
“The friend I met at Penn, his mother is a therapist and his father was—is—a professor at Penn. He, umm, took me under his wing and introduced me to some people who he felt might be able to help connect me to future employment prospects.” She paused, looking for the next words, glancing at Gabriel intermittently.
“I need the whole truth, Athena.” He’d used my full name. I gulped.
“You’re getting it,” I replied, annoyed. “As you know, I was a communication major in the Annenberg School at Penn, with a focus on political science and sociology.”
He nodded, his eyes shifted from watchful to locking onto mine like a magnet. A really strong magnet.
I looked down at my hands and bit the inside of my lower lip.
“We don’t have all day, Athena.”
I leaned forward, giving him a reproachful look, and pulled up the rehearsed explanation. His goading incited me to blast it out, looking from him to the space between us. “He introduced me to a senator he knew and thought my interest in government and sociology might be helpful with a new project that was underway. The senator is a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.”
I dared a glance at Gabriel but the arctic veil hadn’t lifted. His eyes radiated a fierce intelligence as though he knew where I was going with this.
“Are you with the fucking CIA?” he asked, barely containing his fury.
“No, but they asked,” I admitted.
“Who are you with?”
He scoffed, glaring at me.
“I’m serious. They offered. I said no.”
“Why did I say no, or why did they offer?”
“I said no because I don’t think I’m cut out for that… kind of work.” A half-smile crossed over my face. “As a kid, teenager, and even early in my college years, I always thought I’d want to work for the FBI or CIA.” I rolled my eyes. “I know, that probably seems so cliché.” I stole a glance at him, but he wasn’t smiling.
“Sorry, I digressed,” I said without sincerity, my eyes refocused back on a space between us, and then down at my hands. “Anyway, I said no, they came back with an offer of assurance that they’d train me to handle the things I felt I couldn’t, and I said no a final time,” I emphasized.
“Why do you think they offered?”
“Did you read my thesis?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Then you should be able to deduce the rest.”
“What are you doing for senator…?”
“That I can’t tell you, but I’m sure you can probably find out—. ”
He tried to interrupt, but I cut him short. “If you do find out on your own, that’s fine, but I can’t tell you, and that’s also final,” I said, making sure my eyes conveyed there was no room for discussion. “I only ask that you use discretion if you choose to inquire further so as not to jeopardize my research for them which is secret.”
He was angry, and I guessed I couldn’t blame him.
“I assume my paper got the attention of more than just the CIA, or maybe it was my friend’s influence, I’m not really sure which, but I received a call to meet with the SCI, and I did. From there I was offered a part-time research opportunity from a senator, and I took it. It wasn’t going to pay the bills, so when I saw your job posting and the flexible hours during the day, it seemed like a perfect fit.”
“And you never thought to tell me this?” He was seething, and I moved out of my chair to put some distance between us, turning to look out the window.
“I had no reason to believe it would bring danger to me—or you or Mackenzie—and it’s a bit of a leap to think that it has,” I added for emphasis, desperately hoping the uncertainty I felt would remain buried.
“But you’re not sure about that,” he observed.
I turned back to him. A long moment passed. “No, I’m not sure, Gabriel. I probably don’t fully understand the implications of the research I’m doing. Or how it might be used because I’m not privy to that information—or if it will be used at all for that matter. But it has worried me. That—and the psychopath from Penn.”
I leaned forward on the table, my face close to Gabriel’s. “If I have caused any danger to Mackenzie, I will never forgive myself,” I assured him, eyes brimming with tears.
“You can’t stay here if I don’t have all the details regarding what you’re working on, how that information could be used, and if there’s any potential danger to my daughter.”
“I understand,” I whispered, as the tears betrayed me and overflowed. “I’ll pack my bags and be out of here…” She stopped as Mackenzie pushed the door open. How long had she been there?
“You’re leaving me?” she accused, tearfully. “You said you wouldn’t leave me, Thea. Daddy, tell her!” Her voice rose, almost hysterically. “Thea said she’d stay here, please make her stay!” she wailed, running to me.
“Mackenzie, come here,” he said softly.
“No! I won’t!” she screamed, clinging to me as though her little life depended on it.
Everything blurred as I tried to blink away the tears, now overflowing and streaming down my cheeks, tried to put myself second and Mackenzie first.
I wiped them away with the back of my hands before wrapping my arms around Mackenzie, pulling her into a hug. “Zee, look at me.”
“Thea,” she sobbed. “Please, please don’t go.”
My heart broke in that moment, in ways I didn’t think were possible, in ways that couldn’t be fixed—not even by the most skilled physician.
“Is she okay?” I asked Gabriel as he walked into the kitchen after tucking Mackenzie into bed.
“No, she’s not okay, Athena.” His eyes were dark, still angry, and filled with worry.
There were a million things I wanted to say, but in the end, they didn’t really matter. “I packed my bags. I wasn’t sure if I should stay until morning to say goodbye to Mackenzie? I don’t want to leave without saying goodbye unless you think that’s better for her.”
“Where will you go?” he asked, his eyes guarded.
“I’ve booked a room at the same hotel Fran is staying at. She’s offered to come pick me up…” I waited, the silence extending between them.
“Stay. I think Mackenzie will benefit more from proper closure with you then if you simply walk away.”
He might as well have cut my heart out with a machete. “That’s not fair. I would never just walk out on her—this is far from simple,” I said quietly, barely controlling my anger.
He looked at me, disdain written on his face. “Let’s talk tomorrow after breakfast—I need time to think this through. You should plan on being here tomorrow night for dinner, but I’ll take her to school tomorrow. Are you okay with making her breakfast?” he asked as a shadow passed through his eyes.
“Yes, of course,” I said, walking toward the stairs before I disintegrated into a million little pieces.
“I don’t want any breakfast.” Her little pout was awfully cute.
“Don’t call me that,” she declared, glaring at me.
I nodded. “All right, Mackenzie,” I corrected softly, taking a deep breath. “I’ve made your favorite pancakes, and since you didn’t eat dinner last night, I made you an extra pancake today. I thought you might be especially hungry.” I stopped herself short from pleading with the little girl.
“O-okay,” Mackenzie offered tearfully.
I turned back toward the stove before Mackenzie could see the tears forming in my eyes, and blinked them away furiously, forcing a smile before turning back. “Here you go, two buttermilk pancakes, one with a sad face,” I explained, keeping my expression soft, despite the sadness threatening to take me down. “The second with a smile, because I hope Mackenzie can find her smile before the day ends.” I placed the plate in front of her, waiting, my eyes never leaving hers.
I wanted to savor this moment and make it last forever.
I was rewarded with a little smile from my subject before she began to devour her breakfast. I risked a glance at Gabriel who gave a nod of approval.
I knew enough about human behavior, even child psychology, to know that it’s never right to pretend something isn’t happening, even if it’s hard—and a child benefits from gentle illustrations honoring how they feel now—along with encouragement that it will get better.
I hated to admit how much his nod of approval meant to me, and I dreaded the moment when he’d return to the house from dropping Mackenzie off at school.
“Bye, Thea,” Mackenzie’s little voice sounded so sad as she jumped down from the bar stool and turned to grab her backpack for school.
I have to get a grip, I thought, as I walked her to the door, fighting the tears.
“Will you be here when I get home today?”
“I will be here, and we’ll have dinner together later, okay?” I assured with a smile.
Mackenzie brightened. “Okay!” she said as she gave me a hug.
My eyes closed and pain washed through my body. I couldn’t breathe.
“Have a good day, sweet girl,” I uttered automatically, and then bit my lip at the term of endearment that had become so automatic, but probably not wise in light of what was to come. I mouthed, Sorry, to Gabriel as he placed his hand on his daughter’s back, gently guiding her out the door, seemingly immune to my pain.
“Thank you for this morning. I appreciate how you handled breakfast and acknowledging Mackenzie’s feelings in a safe way for her,” Gabriel offered, opening the door to his office to let me walk through before him.
“Of course,” I bowed my head, my voice husky, wanting to run in the opposite direction, or be anywhere but his office at this moment.
“Will you be okay?” he asked after he had pulled the chair out for me. I’d expected him to sit at his desk across from me—but he didn’t—he pulled the other chair directly across from me and sat down, far too close. There was no way I would be able to control my emotions with him this close. I felt panic setting in and pushed the chair back, his left eyebrow rose, but he didn’t object.
“This is really hard for me, and I realize that I don’t matter and that all that really does matter—all that should matter—is Mackenzie in all of this,” I started, my voice filled with unshed tears, my eyes closed.
I continued softly, looking down, anywhere but at him. “But I want you to know that I love her…” I paused for a couple of seconds as I desperately tried to keep the tears from falling, my voice from shaking, “and I will do whatever is necessary to ease the pain for her. Just tell me what you think is best.” My eyes felt irritated and shining with tears when I finally looked at him.
He leaned forward and grasped my hands, but I pulled them away as though his were hot coals. He reached back and took my hands gently but firmly and there was no way to stop the floodgates at that point. As my tears fell, I could feel his eyes seeking mine. But I didn’t dare to let him glimpse at the depth of pain I felt—or the love I was desperately trying to deny.
I suppressed a sob. I knew if I gave it space, it would overwhelm me, break me. The pain was so great in my chest that I thought my heart might stop.
When I sniffled to keep snot from dripping down my face, he reached for a tissue from his desk, and I used that moment to try to get a grip because there’d be no stopping if I didn’t get it under control now.
He handed me the tissue, and I took it from him gratefully, our fingers brushing for a brief moment. I hoped he didn’t notice my quick intake of breath at the contact. I managed a ‘thank you’.
He waited while I blew my nose, and I squeezed my eyes tight, looking for the strength to just get through these next few moments so I could go to my room and meditate. Or do something to quell a sadness so deep that I was quite certain my life would ever be the same again.
Minimally, I had to try to get it under control before seeing Mackenzie tonight. I took a deep breath. If I could do this—ignore the tsunami of sadness—it would be for her.
I didn’t dare to look at him, but I thought he might wait all day until I did, so I risked a quick glance.
“I’m sorry. You probably think I’m an emotional wreck—which is totally out of character for me—it’s just, well, to be honest, I’m completely out of my league here. I could not have anticipated what it would feel like to love—and then lose a child.” A sob tore at my throat, but I bit my lip hard to contain it. “I understand this is best for Mackenzie,” I whispered.
I exhaled, brushing away the lone tear that coursed its way down my cheek with a shaky hand, my head bowed, eyes closed.
“Thea?” he asked.
He used my nickname. My heart leaped in my chest despite the sadness. Get a grip. I coached myself, taking a shaky breath.
“Yes?” My voice barely audible.
“Please look at me.”
Fear splintered my heart. My god, did he have any idea what he was asking? But then I squared my shoulders and looked at him with eyes shimmering—what was the point in trying to hide what he already knew was there?
He reached for my hands, but I kept them clasped tightly in my lap. If he touched me, there would be no stopping the force of the torrent that I was barely holding back.
He sighed. “Thank you.”
My eyebrows rose, and I willed myself to stay strong, lifting my eyes to his.
“This is difficult for all of us, but you’re right, we’re adults, and the most important person right now is Mackenzie. I know you love her, and she loves you, too,” he paused, “and that complicates things.”
He sighed. “I don’t want to minimize how beautiful it has been to watch the love grow so quickly between the two of you,” his voice caught, “and yet, I can’t bear to allow something in her life when I don’t know what the long-term ramifications could be. I’m not referring to you,” he clarified, “but rather your side work.”
I wondered, would he ask me to give it up? If he did, would I? But then my heart sank.
“This whole situation has made me re-think having a live-in nanny. It’s possible Mackenzie wouldn’t even take to another person like she has you, or maybe I just need to find someone really old.” He smiled gently at me, and the corner of my lips turned up in response.
“Even though this is hard and unfortunately Mackenzie will be hurt regardless of what we do, I also want you to know that you’ve made an impact on both our lives, Thea. We won’t forget you.”
So this was goodbye.
I looked down at my hands, then looked back at him. “Okay, then, how do we handle this tonight for Mackenzie?"
Watching Gabriel drive away to pick Mackenzie up from school without me nearly sucked the life out of me—it had been a pain-filled day, and one I didn’t wish to relive. I’d spent some time alone in my room, gone for a long run, and retired to my room when I returned.
There was no point in trying to do any research for my other job. And in light of the fact it was the deciding factor for Gabriel that I had to leave, I wasn’t at all sure I could return to it with the same fervor I’d had before today happened.
I sent a text to my sister asking if I could hang at her house for a few weeks while I figured things out, and she’d responded with “Of course,” which was exac
Something didn’t feel right, and it hadn’t since I’d returned from my run. But I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I’d chalked it up to the sadness at having to leave a family I’d come to love as though they were my own.
Mackenzie had loved the coconut, chocolate chip cookies I had made for her during their first week together. Although I didn’t want to make things harder for Mackenzie, I did want her to remember our last day together as a special one.
I turned away from the window with resolve, and moved to the oven to preheat it to 350 degrees, then began pulling the ingredients from the refrigerator and pantry when my cell phone buzzed. I glanced at it, saw Gabriel’s name pop up, and answered immediately.
“Hey,” I answered softly.
“Athena, is Mackenzie with you?”
“What do you mean is she with me? You’re at the school, aren’t you?”
“I am, but she’s not here.”
“Gabriel, she always walks out with Jayleen and Abby. Are they there?”
“Yes, I’m with them, and Shay and Margot—the girls haven’t seen Mackenzie since they got out of class.”
“What do you mean? Where could she be? You don’t think…?” Panic began to fill my voice.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the house, making her favorite cookies. I’ll turn the oven off and come to the school.”
“No, I want you to stay home just in case she makes it there somehow. We’re going to search the school. I’ve already called Fran and Cox, and they are on their way.”
“Gabriel—please, please keep me posted. I want to help—”
“I know, Thea. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything. Call Pastor Bernie and ask him to pray. Make sure he knows to keep it quiet.” Then the call abruptly ended.
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